Mass detention of 300 Tamil migrants cost $18-million, says Canada Border Services Agency

Posted by admin on Feb 14th, 2011

By TIM NAUMETZ. Published February 14, 2011

The detention of more than 300 Tamil migrants who landed on Vancouver Island last summer aboard a rusty Thai cargo ship called the MV Sun Sea has so far cost $18-million, the Canada Border Services Agency says. With 107 of the Tamils still in custody—and only five so far publicly linked to accusations of even indirect links to Tamil Tiger fighters in Sri Lanka—the high cost for the mass detention has prompted opposition MPs to renew calls on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s (Calgary-Southwest, Alta.) government to withdraw a controversial bill it claims will counter human smuggling.

The detention terms of Bill C-49, which would allow the confinement of refugees arriving at Canada’s shores or borders for a year with no judicial review, would result in an immense unjustified cost, say Liberal and NDP MPs.

The newly-revealed cost of the Sun Sea detentions, combined with another CBSA disclosure to The Hill Times that only 12 of the Tamil migrants are facing Federal Court hearings on government challenges over their right to legally remain in Canada as refugees, has also spurred opposition MPs into accusing the government of using the incident to heighten fear in Canada over refugee entry and divide new and old immigrant communities for electoral gain.

As the Sun Sea neared Canada last August, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (Provencher, Man.) spurred concerns publicly that the ship might be carrying members of the Tamil Tiger rebel group, which had been listed internationally as a terrorist organization for its violence against the Sri Lankan government during a decades-long independence movement.

Mr. Toews, who raised the possibility of Tamil Tiger infiltration when he was in Toronto for a speech about national security on Aug. 9 last summer, was at the dock when Canadian naval vessels escorted the Sun Sea into Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt on Aug. 13.

Protected from sight by a temporary cover of tarpaulins, Mr. Toews told journalists the Tamil migrant arrival demonstrated Canada had to “look at our laws, to see if they are sufficiently strong.”

But the Canada Border Services Agency told The Hill Times in an email response to questions that by last Thursday it had released 336 adult Tamils from custody, leaving 107 in detention, including 12 still facing Federal Court litigation over their refugee applications. The agency said the Sun Sea also had carried a further 49 Tamils who are minors and had not been detained.

Five of the Tamils who are among the 12 apparently in court over their refugee claims are a newspaper reporter who worked for a publication controlled by the Tamil Tigers and who was injured by an artillery shell in 2009, a man who underwent weapons training, a rebel karate instructor who appeared in a propaganda film, another who allegedly used his tractor to transport people and supplies to Tamil fortifications and a woman who worked for a library funded by the Tamil Tigers.

The agency said more than 80 per cent of a total of $22-million for the arrival, processing and detention of the migrants costs went toward detention, adding “the cost of detention represents $190 per day per person.”

The agency, in explaining a further cost of $2.8-million related to the Sun Sea arrivals and detentions, said that money will primarily “pay for the cost of detention services provided by British Columbia for the migrants from MV Sun Sea remaining in detention on the coming into force of the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act (the government’s informal title for Bill C-49).”

The suggestion that the 107 Tamils who remain in detention could be subject retroactively subject to Bill C-49, should it become law, further infuriated the opposition. Parliamentary convention and legal principle normally prevents the terms of a new law from applying to offences or administrative decisions for actions that were committed before the law took effect.

Liberal MP Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) said the drama and fear Mr. Toews stirred up before and during the Sun Sea’s arrival, and the government’s subsequent introduction of Bill C-49 in the House of Commons, indicates the government is not only attempting to incite fear about refugee arrivals—which number about 19,000 a year—but also to divide new and established immigrant communities.

The government, primarily represented by Immigration and Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney (Calgary Southwest, Alta.), has assiduously worked major immigrant and new-Canadian communities over the past several years. In the lunar New Year celebrations this year for instance, government ministers, including Mr. Harper or party representatives on his behalf, have distributed small red paper envelopes stuffed with foil-covered milk chocolate toonies, a symbolic gift of coin, in Chinese and Vietnamese communities in major Canadian cities. The envelopes were accompanied by a small card with Asian symbols and colours, with a small colour portrait of Mr. Harper and his family.

Though the government’s dramatization of the Sun Sea and the clampdown on the Tamil migrants might seem to counter the government’s wish to curry favour with immigrant voters, Mr. Trudeau said it fits in with the government’s desire to make Conservative inroads in the larger, more established communities.

“There is no contradiction in that, unfortunately,” Mr. Trudeau told The Hill Times. “If you look at what they’re looking at specifically in terms of going to get votes, newly arrived immigrants are permanent residents and they don’t vote yet, refugees are still years away from becoming voting citizens. What they are doing is ramping up concerns about the latest people arriving by demonstrating and telling first-generation, newer immigrants but who are already citizens, that it’s because of these new refugees that you’re having to wait eight years to bring over your ailing parents from India, for example.

“It’s trying to convince people to close the door behind them after they’re in, and it’s pandering to the very worst of human instincts, but that’s what they do very well for political strategy.”

NDP MP Paul Dewar (Ottawa Centre, Ont.) said the Sun Sea experience demonstrates the failings of a penal approach to the treatment of refugee arrivals, particularly, as in the Tamil case, when migrants are fleeing the destruction of a recent civil war.

“This is just a harbinger of things to come if this bill [C-49] goes through, it’s going to put a lot of emphasis on putting people behind bars before they get due process, because that’s what’s contemplated in the bill.”

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